With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority. I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car. I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind; for myself, looking at this mess that lacked any accompanying instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication. I could not. But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground.
Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground. We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon. Unsure of the tent’s four corners, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors. We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them. After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics: it hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles. So we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent. However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead. It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west. But I somehow managed to deflate it and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf.
Eventually, despite the bluster, we erected and secured the nylon shelter. The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its grandiloquence. Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut. We were proud of our first home in the desert.
Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love. After spreading our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper. It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish. A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too unattractive―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wild wind. So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove well into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal. The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly. Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods.
After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the park. The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness. To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380. To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds. (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town”; perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest whoopee.) After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.
Which was pure pandemonium. The wind had increased in velocity. Staring into the tent’s darkness, I was hoping and praying for that nudge into blessed slumber, yet it refused to occur. Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me; I could practically feel it. Every 60 seconds, for hours it seemed, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes. And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer―as if the desert night was expressing outrage at our presence. This went on until the wee hours. (And thus we learned that powerful winds were an inevitable element of springtime in New Mexico. “Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)
At an immaculately still sunrise, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent. Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax. Obviously, the weight of our corpses was the only thing that had prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity Site overnight. Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods.
After we had packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―surprised me by proposing that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving. So we stumbled over the hundred yards of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava. A nature walk for the walking dead.
Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert. I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast hairdos. Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright. Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque. But I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.